Devolution is unfinished business - we should trust the English people, says Hilary Benn
Hilary Benn MP, Labour’s Shadow Communities and Local Government secretary, in an article published on Telegraph.co.uk, wrote:
Many families will have a collection of England football shirts worn with pride by different generations over the decades. Shirts that tell tales of triumph and disappointment. And whether red or white (or even the odd blue one), what has remained consistent is the badge – the famous three lions.
Today many people will celebrate St George’s Day, but while we are proud to talk about being English when it comes to sport, in politics there has been some reluctance to talk about Englishness in the way that our friends and relatives in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland celebrate their national identity. We should change that and talk proudly about being English. And we should reclaim the flag of St George from those whose values certainly do not represent what our nation is all about. Our flags – the Union Jack and the Cross of St George – belong to all of us.
Identity – how we see ourselves – is an interesting thing. Narrow nationalism claims that we have to be defined by one identity, but that is a false choice. We all have many identities and we don't have to choose only one. We can be proud to be English, and British, and from Leeds or Leicester or London, and be comfortable in all of them. Similarly the Labour Party is proud to have a history that is steeped in the stories of England, Wales and Scotland over the last century.
It was an Englishman who took through the National Parks Bill that has preserved the glories of our countryside and an English woman who brought in equal pay for women. It was a Welshman who created the NHS – a unique institution of which we are all proud. And a Prime Minister, born in Scotland, who gave back self-government to London – our great capital city – and created a Mayor.
And just as we have more than one identity, so political power is now exercised at different levels and in different places at home and around the world. We know that there are some things that have to be dealt with further away from where we live and work, and yet we also want as much chance as possible to determine our own future.
The United Kingdom is a living expression of our belief that we achieve more together than we do alone. We celebrate the history and contribution of all parts of the UK, including England. Patriotism is not the preserve of any one political party. It is a shared pride in history, nation and values. Each country should feel comfortable with celebrating its own identity while being part of a partnership from which we all derive benefit, security, mutual support, and greater influence in a changing world.
And just as the people of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are intensely proud of who they are and have grasped the chance to take more decisions for themselves, now is the time for the people of England to have the same opportunity.
Devolution is unfinished business. While the rest of United Kingdom has benefited from it, England has had very little. Neither Whitehall nor Westminster has really changed to reflect the new settlement. England remains a very centralised country, and too many decisions affecting the regions of England are still taken within a mile’s radius of Big Ben. And yet the English are just as entitled to enjoy devolution of power as the rest of the UK's citizens, and as the debate about Scottish independence intensifies people in England will increasingly ask “what about us?”.
I want to see a radical devolution of power to local communities. We should do this both because it is right and because there is so much skill and potential in every community to make more of its own decisions. It is how our great English cities grew in the 19th century when local government brought homes, schools, hospitals, gas, electricity and clean water that transformed lives. And the challenges of our age are just as great. A population that is growing, ageing and will need caring for; public health that can overcome the epidemics of the 21st century; finding a way to live sustainably and recognising that we depend on the climate and the natural environment for our very existence; generating our own renewable energy; developing more regional banking and finance; investing in the next generation of infrastructure - high-speed rail and even higher-speed broadband; and helping to build the economy and jobs of the future. After all the population of Yorkshire and Humb erside is bigger than Scotland, and the North of England economy is more than twice the size of the Scottish economy. All of these will need local leadership with Government giving communities the tools, powers, and finance they require to do the job.
That’s why we should say to local communities and local government in England – cities and counties – that we are prepared to devolve power over transport, infrastructure, skills, and economic development. And that we will devolve these things in the way that you want it.
For me, more decisions taken in England and away from Westminster, would not just be a good thing in itself. It would also recognise our pride in being English and put our trust in the English people to shape their communities and their regions in the way that they want.